Monday, February 11, 2013

Lifescouts: Skydiving

image via Lifescouts
This post was originally written a long, long time ago on my old Livejournal account, right after my little adventure.  It's a pretty good story, so I thought I'd share it here.

How Mrs. Geek Earned the Skydiving Badge

We met early in the morning and talked of logistical matters- how many vehicles to take, who should drive, how many people could fit in each car, would we have time to stop for a meal. Two of our number were late arriving, but we found out later in the day that this hour would’ve been spent waiting either way. We climbed in the cars discussing the lies, half-truths, and denials we’d fed our parents so that they would let us out of their sights for an entire day- most, myself included, never told our parents a thing so as to save unnecessary worry. We swapped stories about how we’d spent the night before.  One boy had wanted to go to confession but was unable to make it without raising suspicions about why such a thing would be so completely necessary. He was at peace with his life, though, and knew in his heart that his affairs were in order and that everything would be okay. Most of our stories were different in tone from his; we’d had intentions of going to sleep early to be well-rested and prepared for the day’s events, but had instead spent the entire evening at bars and nightclubs and parties with the small, quiet voice in the back of our minds reminding us that this could be our last night alive, so we should make the most of it.
We were a surprisingly morbid bunch.
After two and a half hours of discussions about Power Rangers, questioning one boy’s sexual preferences, and discovering Seagull Paradise (Seagull Island? Seagull Village? What did we name that place?) we arrived at the air field in Delaware and picked up our paperwork.
Most people signed their lives away blindly; I tried to read the whole thing carefully, wanting to know exactly what my family’s rights were should something happen, exactly who they could sue (the answer: no one), but in the end my impatience beat my maturity and I scribbled my signature on the last page and rushed to turn it back in. I scribbled my signature again on a check for $150 and was disappointed to hear that the video/pictures package was unavailable that day. We took our seats in the shade and waited to hear our names called to begin our (very, very, very) brief training.
It was summertime hot, but not nearly as stifling as the 100 degrees of weeks past, so a Frisbee was thrown about and a really terrible game of volleyball soon began. The sun reached its highest peak in the sky overhead (behind a humid haze of thin white clouds) and our stomachs rumbled with complaints about a lack of breakfast or lunch. We were told that our first set still had an hour and a half to wait, so a few of us drove from the middle of nowhere to a little west of the middle of nowhere, past cornfields and cemeteries and railroad tracks, to a tiny restaurant advertising pizza and subs. 

I ate as if I’d never eaten before, as if I’d never tasted a ham sandwich quite so delicious, then proceeded to look at the “coolest CD player ever,” one which was “so tight.” Our little lunchtime delegation found a grocery store on our way back to the middle of nowhere and purchased bottled water to keep us energized.
As we climbed back in the car with the water in the trunk, it dawned on me exactly why we were in the parking lot of a Food Lion in DelMar (the place where Delaware and Maryland come together, where the land is divided by crooked, curvy streets marking the boundaries), and for the first time that day my adrenaline started pumping.
The pumping died down when we were met in the parking lot by an instructor, offering us vouchers to come back another day if we wished since the wait was literally going to be all day long. Two of our number took him up on the offer; they were staying the whole weekend at the beach there anyway and would come back the next day. The other ten of us all decided that since we’d traveled so far to get here and spent all day building up the anticipation, a few more hours couldn’t do us any harm.
We sat around sharing funny stories about work and downing the lukewarm bottled water as if it were the elixir of life, and all the while I kept snapping pictures and telling people to smile, because this could be the last picture ever taken of them.
“You mean the last picture ever taken of me alive,” someone said. “I’m sure they take pictures while they prep for burial.”
We laughed about painting the fields with our mangled bodies, wondering if we could manage to smash into the ground in the form of a smiley face. We said we should call our lawyers (though none of us actually have any) and hurriedly arrange a last will and testament, promising our cars and stereos and gun collections and other favorite worldly possessions to whomever managed to survive the day if we did not. The instructors listening to our morbid conversation chuckled and shook their heads and kept walking past.
We were laughing at the thought of death. We were so young, so alive, that the idea of dying seemed so preposterous that the only way to deal with it was to joke about it. We could simply not fathom the idea that perhaps the adventure we were about to embark on could end in some way other than a safe return. We were invincible.
The first pair was called to receive their harnesses. I tagged along, trusty camera in hand, wanting to document the entire experience on film so that friends and family would know why we were gone in case we didn’t return. Still we smiled.
The little Cessna came trundling into view and the boys met their instructors who tweaked their harnesses and reminded them again about the simple choreography of limbs necessary to insure that everything went smoothly. Suddenly they were squeezing themselves into the back of the rickety old plane, and I felt my first wave of fear; we were really going to do this. 
Fifteen minutes went by (maybe more?) but it felt like an eternity. The next pair was called in for preparation, and again I photographed the ordeal of hooking snaps and pulling belts and turned my face away to hide my blush as the instructor asked the guys to “move their boys” out of the way so the harness could be tightened fully. A call rang out over the loudspeaker informing those around that in two minutes, we should scan the skies for the specs that would be our friends. 
I climbed into the back of the golf cart and was driven out to the gravel bullseye in the middle of the field, the constant photographer on the watch.
“There they are!” an instructor shouted, readying himself to assist with the landing and recovery.
It was Icarus, flying too close to the sun on his makeshift wings. He was soaring, spinning in circles, coming around in a wide, sweeping arc. But his wings would not melt to pieces; he was getting closer; I snapped one, two, three pictures; there he was- and he was not Icarus, he was Cameron, and he was safely landing on the ground, striding confidently forward as if he’d been traveling by Portkey for years, falling out of the sky on a regular basis. As his parachute was gathered up, there came another- I recognized him immediately as Scoop, his floppy mop of blonde-brown hair blowing in a gentle breeze. His long legs were pulled in close to himself and then he was back again, standing firm on solid ground, once more on this earth, a part of this world below the clouds and the sun.
I screamed for them like they were rockstars, and both vehemently told the instructors they wanted to go again- right now- higher- faster- longer- 
I strode back across the field, camera in hand, preparing to capture the next pair climbing aboard the plane that looked so fragile when on the ground but so agile when climbing up up up. Any fear was gone, and the adrenaline hadn’t started. All I felt now was envy and impatience; I wanted to fly, and I wanted to fly now. I couldn’t stand the thought of waiting for the next group to go- I needed to experience this for myself.
But I did wait, if impatiently, and waved goodbye to the next two boys who climbed into the plane with their instructors. After what felt like an age, I was being strapped into my own harness (snug all over but especially pinching at the thighs) and went to receive my training.
“So what made you want to do this?” asked the instructor. I thought about it for a second, then decided on my answer.
“Well,” I explained, “I’m only a teenager for a couple more weeks; I figured I should do something stupid while I can still get away with it.”
“This isn’t stupid,” he laughed.
“My mom would think this is stupid,” I replied.
invincible, stupid, 19-year-old me // {personal photo}
We, the only two girls brave enough for this adventure, were shown the elegant ballet of preparing for the jump. “Jump” is probably the wrong word for it; it’s actually a fall. The instructions were clear, and I nodded that I was ready, handing someone my camera to photograph my experience.
Still, I was not scared. I was excited, like when you first walk through the gates of an amusement park and pick out your favorite roller coaster. But you still have to walk through the whole park, passed the over priced pretzels and the giant costumed characters and the souvenir vendors and the lame kiddy rides, and then there’s the wait in the impossibly long line and the safety instructions and the bored ride operator who checks the security of your enclosure with the lightest push on the bar…
I’m horribly impatient.
I met my tandem instructor and allowed him to tweak the harness, loosening and tightening and tugging and snapping and twisting. He gave me a set of goggles, pulled them tight, and said that I needed them to seal on my nose so that no air would be let in and they would stay in place during free-fall. He said if my contacts were to pop out, don’t worry, for when I landed and removed my goggles the little lenses would be right there, and I could pop them back in again. He reviewed the dance involved in making the freefall and we made our way towards the plane.
I crammed myself in behind the pilot, sitting on the floor (the pilot’s seat was the only chair) with my feet stretched out in front of me, my friend and our two instructors smushed together to my right. The plane taxied down the makeshift runway with the door still open (for circulation), then turned around and waited, crouching like a tiger, in preparation for flight. The door was closed. The temperature shot up. My heart rate remained impossibly steady.
We took off, rising into the air, farther, higher, faster. From my position sitting on the floor, I couldn’t see out the window to my right, but I had other things to worry about. I crossed myself and began to gather my thoughts, to pray.
I thanked God for the life He’d given me, asked forgiveness for anything I’d done wrong. I told Him I was ready, and I understood if He wanted to call me home that day. I mean, honestly, if I had to die eventually anyway, this would be one hell of a way to go out. Then I said a decade of the rosary, just for good measure. A real sense of peace fell over me then; again, I was not scared, I was not nervous, and for a moment I was not even excited; I was just ready. I asked God for the serenity, strength, and sense to execute the free-fall properly so as to not screw anything up. Then I crossed myself again and started grinning. 
“My dad flies planes like this,” I shouted to my instructor over the buzz of the propeller. “Not so sure what he’d think about me jumping out of one.”
I heard the pilot communicating with the air field, and knew from the day’s experience that we were two minutes away from the drop zone. I was told to turn around and kneel behind the pilot so my instructor could tighten my harness one last time and attach us together. All the while my mantra was the steps of the dance- plant my feet on the step, cross my arms across my chest, three-two-one- arch my head back, pull my legs up behind me.
“Stupid question,” I shouted.
“What’s that?”
“When I kick my feet back, do I go on the outside of your legs or in between them?”
“Doesn’t matter,” he said. “Just arch your back as much as you can as quickly as you can and leave it like that.”
The door opened; the cold air felt refreshing after the boiling hot plane ride as I put on my goggles. My instructor tucked my ponytail inside the cord so it wouldn’t get in his face.
The first pair was lining themselves up- leaning out the door- and then-
They disappeared from view completely.
Still, I was not scared.
We inched our way to the door on our knees. I sat on the edge of the plane, put my feet on the step- but they wouldn’t plant solidly like I’d been told! Instead they were being blown in the wind like the branches of a frail tree, unable to take hold of a solid base. I didn’t panic; something told me everything would be okay. I crossed my arms in front of my chest. My instructor leaned us forward and put his foot on the step- leaning forward like this I was able to plant my feet now.
“Okay ready?”
I nodded silently.
“Three- two-one- arch!” he shouted. I felt us lean forward, almost in slow motion, and then my feet were no longer touching anything and all rational thought escaped my mind. The next few seconds were just sensation, no thought.
The first sensation was cold. Really really cold.
The next sensation- processing the image of the bottom of the plane directly in front of me. My mind quickly put this together to mean that we had flipped immediately upon exiting and were now upside down. Next I had to process the image of the ground directly in front of me, which meant it was below me, which meant we’d finished the flip.
The next sensation was of my mouth stretched into a grin- I’d apparently started smiling when I crossed my arms and was still smiling. My mouth was filling with cold air and I couldn’t close it, so I tried to scream but no sound could be heard though I was shouting myself hoarse, so I stopped.
The advertisements said we’d be in free-fall for 60-70 seconds; it felt like just an instant, just the amount of time it takes to snap your fingers. Later, back on the ground, back in this world, my friends and I rationalized that the fall was probably only 30 seconds since the smaller plane couldn’t reach the high altitude we had expected. 
In the air, all I knew was that free-fall was the most delicious experience you could ever imagine. As soon as the cord was pulled and the parachute began to deploy, I felt a tug pulling me back up briefly, and I immediately craved that feeling again. I wanted it back- no, I needed it back; I wanted to keep falling.
My instructor tugged on both of the handles used for steering and suddenly we were hovering. We weren’t floating, we weren’t gliding, we weren’t descending to the ground, we were stationary there, looking about at creation below us and soaking it all in.
“You want to steer?” he asked me (in a regular voice now. The rushing wind was gone and all was still, quiet, peaceful) and at first I said no. “Aw, come on, girl- you’ve got nothing better to do up here!”
So I slipped my fingers through the loops and held onto the straps.
“Your dad pilots airplanes,” he said, “but you- you’re flying, girl.”
He showed me that if I pulled down on just the right cord and let the left stay up, we would go into a spin, and if I relaxed my legs the blood would rush to my feet and my legs would go numb from the force of gravity.

{personal photo}
 “It’s so beautiful,” I kept saying (I probably sounded pretty stupid after a while). We coasted around, watching the cars grow larger and the dots become people, sailing in cool arcs around the air field. He told me to tuck my legs in close and get ready for the landing, and we picked up speed as we aimed for the large gravel target. I screamed to my friends on the ground who were watching me, taking pictures, and landed perfectly with a rockstar fist-pump. 
“That was awesome!” I shouted over and over again, allowing myself to get unhooked from my instructor. “I want to do it again right now!”
Awesome, awesome, awesome was all I felt.
{personal photo}
I called Mom and told her what I’d just accomplished, then explained why I hadn’t told her I’d been planning it. I described the whole thing to Dad, let him know the statistics- jumped 9,500 feet, free-fall for less than 60 seconds, parachute deployed at 3000 feet, 5ish minutes of coasting to the ground. Mom, I think, is still digesting it, still trying to wrap her mind around the idea, and Dad is just very impressed. He thinks I’m brave- but bravery is being scared of something and doing it anyway. I wasn’t scared.
My baby sister thinks I’m crazy and other sister flipped out, shouting incoherently about how awesome I am. 
I am pretty awesome.
I am young.
I am invincible.
I am alive.
Mr. Geek has also been skydiving, though I'm not sure he would describe his experience quite so dramatically.  Maybe I can convince him to share his story sometime, too.
Have you ever been skydiving?  Would you go again?
Much love,
The Geeks

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